Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
The old show business adage seems truer than ever in a culture where the expiration dates on humour keep moving up to the point where, now, what was funny yesterday may not even be funny tomorrow.
Those somehow surprised that British humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s books are being reissued in altered form with content warnings seem to have forgotten that even sitcoms from this century (cough, 30 Rock) have had episodes edited or removed from streaming for being no longer up to snuff sensitivity-wise.
With certain stand-up comedians coming under attack for new jokes – sometimes literally, in the case of Chris Rock – who on Earth would even try to make a live audience laugh at jokes that are 40, 100 or 300 years old?
Well, the Shaw Festival makes the attempt each season as a matter of mission. The Ontario destination theatre company is even named after a writer of century-old comedies that have been declared dead more often than Gordon Lightfoot. (Too soon?)
The Globe and Mail spoke to four directors working there this season about their strategies for getting chuckles out of classics.
The old comedy: On the Razzle, Tom Stoppard, 1981
The new director: Craig Hall, former artistic director of Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre
While rewriting comedy to make it funny again may seem heretical in publishing, it is an ancient theatrical tradition of which this Stoppard’s play is a fine example.
This is the brilliant British playwright’s farcical free adaptation of an 1842 Viennese play by Johann Nestroy about two shop clerks who sneak out for a night on the town – which itself was based on an 1835 English one-act by John Oxenford.
Stoppard was far from the first to following in their funny footsteps: Thornton Wilder, best known for Our Town, added a matchmaker figure to Nestroy’s cast of character to create The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938 – which he later rewrote into The Matchmaker in 1955.
Then, composer Jerry Herman made Wilder’s matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi sing when he turned that play into Hello, Dolly! in 1964.
Forty years have now passed since Stoppard’s (Dolly-free) go at the material, which the playwright’s biographer describes as “laden, perhaps overladen, with puns, double entendres, malapropisms, misfiring clichés and gleefully filthy sexual innuendo.”
Hall calls On the Razzle very much “British humour of the eighties,” and acknowledges that some of its jokes have gone broke. But he’s only cut one – a non-sequitur involving a racial slur – because the script is jam-packed with gags. “There’s a lot of things that aren’t going to land, but there’s more than enough to make up for it,” he says. “I see a lot of directors try to fix a comedy by adding jokes. ... There’s no need to put a sauce on the sauce.”
The old comedy: Blithe Spirit, 1941
The new director: Mike Payette, artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre
English playwright Noel Coward’s comedy about novelist Charles Condomine sharing a house with his second wife and the accidentally conjured ghost of his late wife is described on the Shaw website as “a theatre-lovers’ favourite ever since it was written.”
But that tide may be starting to turn: A 2020 film adaptation, despite a performance by Judi Dench as medium Madame Arcati, united critics and audience members in a low 28-per-cent rating from on the Rotten Tomatoes splat-o-meter.
A Google search of recent reviews of the play shows the word “misogyny” creeping into more and more of them – even the positive ones.
While Payette agrees there’s a “misogynistic aspect” to the central character of Charles, he’s not spooked by it: For him, there are lots of ways for the joke to be on Charles – and for a production to use that theme to explore the changing gender roles of the 1940s. “I don’t think it’s entirely far from Coward’s intention,” he says. “There is a deliberate discourse within there.”
Making his Shaw debut, Payette has found there to be plenty enduring amusing, too, in the physical chemistry between Charles (Damien Atkins) and his spectral wife Elvira (Julia Course). Indeed, he’s leaning into how the play connects to continued interest in the spirit world (see: reality TV’s Ghost Hunters and the popular podcast A Paranormal Chicks).
“We’re taking that a little bit more seriously, which is ostensibly funny,” Payette says.
The old comedy: The Apple Cart, Bernard Shaw, 1928
The director: Eda Holmes, artistic director of the Centaur Theatre in Motnreal
This was one of Shaw’s controversial comedies from the get-go, concerning as it does a wise king named Magnus who fights off attacks on his power from an elected prime minister named Proteus. In England, some critics felt this was a heel turn toward royalist from the social-democrat playwright. According to Shaw’s preface, the play was prohibited in Dresden as “blasphemy against Democracy.”
Holmes, now an old hand at directing the works of the uncancellable Shaw (in Niagara-on-the-Lake, anyway), says she’s approaching the show from the “political satire end of things,” and sees a British style of comedy in it that has endured, from Yes, Minister to HBO’s John Oliver.
As Shaw’s plays are in the public domain, she has not been shy about slicing some of the playwright’s more esoteric “sidebars” – and an ethnic slur against Italians – so the audience can focus on the arguments in the play.
Though Shaw misread many things in his time (and did, indeed, flirt with fascism), Holmes says that doesn’t mean parts of his work aren’t nevertheless prescient. With its portrait of a future parliament in the pocket of big business, The Apple Cart’s underlying question about whether democracy and capitalism can truly co-exist is “legitimate,” she says: “It resonates around things like the McKenzie Group’s infiltration into governments around the world.”
The old comedy: The Game of Love and Chance, Marivaux, 1730
The new director: Tim Carroll, artistic director of the Shaw Festival
This 18th-century French romantic comedy inspired by commedia dell’arte concerns a mistress who swaps roles with her maid to secretly observe a man selected to be her husband.
For his production, director Carroll has come up the most radical way of making it fresh: Throw out the script entirely. His actors are learning the structure of Marivaux’s scenes, but will improvise the show in different style each night, often in different roles.
“If you think comedy goes out of fashion quickly, translations go out out of date incredibly quickly,” Carroll says of how the idea first came to him.
The director has assembled a cast that includes noted theatrical improvisor Rebecca Northan, but also company members usually associated with perfectly rehearsed rhetoric or impeccably timed physical comedy such as Graeme Somerville and Deborah Hay.
“The company are used to my perverse desire to throw them things that will catch them off balance,” says Carroll, who has often introduced elements of chance into his productions. “The people who signed up for this show are actually the ones who kind of wanted that.”
As for the secret of the Shaw Festival’s success with old comedies in general, Carroll points to its audience. “I think they understand that a play written 100 years ago will have an impact that’s different now – that some of the things that were funny then are no longer funny or pull you up short now,” he says. “We really try to trust them to know that the past is another country.”
The Shaw Festival continues through October. Visit shawfest.com for schedule and tickets.